On late-night menus in Boston restaurants, Asian flavors take a starring role

Kyle Thomas Hemingway (left) and Greg Dickinson at Seoul Kitchen.
Kyle Thomas Hemingway (left) and Greg Dickinson at Seoul Kitchen.Credit: Laurie Swope for the Boston Globe

On a Friday creeping toward midnight, business winds down at most Boston hotel restaurants. But at Uni Sashimi Bar at the Eliot Hotel, people are just lining up. They have come to eat ramen, the Japanese noodle soup that is enjoying a moment of culinary trendiness. Uni began serving a late-night menu focused on the dish earlier this year. Those who want to try it can only do so after 11 p.m. on weekends.

In a city that hasn’t been known for its late-night dining options, Chinatown has long been an after-hours destination. Now restaurants in other neighborhoods — even places that serve Western fare during regular hours — are introducing their own late-night menus featuring dishes inspired by Asia.

At Sel de la Terre, a French restaurant in the Back Bay, the kitchen looks toward Korea Tuesdays through Saturdays after 10 p.m. Its Late Night Seoul Kitchen menu offers dishes such as Korean-style fried chicken, steamed buns, and noodle soups.

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In the Theatre District, W Boston restaurant Market offers a special menu on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 to midnight. The salmon sashimi, chicken samosas, and mushroom eggrolls cost $10 per plate. And a pop-up restaurant called Guchi’s Midnight Ramen has been a smash, taking over local establishments such as the Gallows and JM Curley for a few nights at a time, selling out tickets in minutes flat.

If European cuisine still rules Boston’s upscale restaurants, Asian food is increasingly influential. Customers are gravitating to its bright, bold, and spicy flavors, and chefs see such late-night menus as a way to bring in crowds. The National Restaurant Association study “What’s Hot in 2012” predicts the rise. Surveying nearly 1,800 chefs, it names street-food-inspired appetizers and main courses, fusion cuisine, Southeast Asian and Korean cuisine, Asian noodles, small plates, Asian-flavored cocktails, and more as trends for the year.

For diners today, value is paramount. The often lower price point of small plates and Asian fare is attractive, particularly when it comes to late-night snacking.

“A French restaurant is going to be very expensive, and people don’t want to spend another $60 or $70 late at night,” says chef Jiho Kim, who helped create the Late Night Seoul Kitchen menu at Sel de la Terre. “People go and spend $10.”

These menus also make sense for the restaurants that offer them, filling seats during what might otherwise be slower times. Market, for example, has seen a spike in late-night traffic since introducing its version at the end of July, says chef de cuisine Brian Anderson. The weekend of July 27, numbers were up 77 percent from the previous year; the following weekend they were up 197 percent.

Market has particularly focused on bringing in restaurant-industry workers, who keep late hours, Anderson says.

“We have seen some great business pick up late night,” he says. “People are drawn to Asian-inspired food. Personally, I love it. I went to Singapore for an internship, and you see the Southeast Asian street food, that’s what everyone eats until 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 in the morning.”

Diners seem to be in love with Asian street food. Food-oriented shows such as Travel Channel’s “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” have stoked viewers’ appetites for Vietnamese pho and Singapore hawker fare. New York chef David Chang has become one of the most influential figures on the food scene with his Momofuku restaurants, drawing on Japanese, Korean, and other Asian cuisines.

Many have followed his lead. Some of the country’s hottest restaurants are headed by chefs who take Asian cooking and give it their own spin. This spring, two West Coast establishments opened outposts in New York — Mission Chinese Food, where Korean-born, Oklahoma-raised chef Danny Bowien serves what the restaurant has called “Americanized Oriental food,” and Pok Pok Ny, where Portland, Ore., chef Andy Ricker prepares Thai dishes. At both places, people can wait hours for a table.

“There are certain dining trends in the past five years, like the Momofuku empire, that have really made Asian dining more approachable,” says Tracy Chang, a cofounder of Guchi’s Midnight Ramen. “You’re not just tracking down a dark hidden gem in Chinatown or Koreatown or Japantown.”

Locally, several new restaurants have opened recently that seem poised to capitalize on this — the pan-Asian Moksa in Cambridge’s Central Square, modern Asian lounge Shojo in Chinatown, and Japanese spot Yakitori Zai in the South End, for example. A branch of the Japan-based ramen restaurant Yume wo Katare is slated to open in Porter Square in Cambridge, and a brick-and-mortar version of Vietnam-inspired food truck Bon Me is planned for Kendall Square.

For the time being, however, downtown diners may be most likely to see Asian flavors appearing on late-night menus, at pop-restaurants and food trucks, or at venues that split the difference between restaurant and nightclub, such as Big Night Entertainment’s Empire and Red Lantern.

Competition among restaurants has become intense, says Charlie Perkins of the Boston Restaurant Group, a real estate company that brokers restaurant deals. It’s increasingly difficult for smaller, riskier concepts to take off in Boston’s prime neighborhoods.

“The city is getting maxed out. To be successful downtown, you have to be a celebrity chef, have a killer concept, or be a recognized brand like a chain,” he says.

Boston has added more than 4,000 new restaurant seats in the past two years. Where rents were $30 or $40 per square foot not long ago, $50 or $60 has become the new baseline. A full liquor license can cost between $275,000 and $325,000.

Traditionally, Asian restaurants sell less liquor than other establishments, about 10 to 15 percent of total sales as compared with anywhere from 20 to 25 percent for a high-end, full-service restaurant to 70 to 80 percent for a bar. And then there is the expectation of a lower price point — so appealing to diners, who are accustomed to viewing Asian food as a budget option. “It’s not location, location, location anymore,” Perkins says. “It’s location, the right concept at that location, and the right sales-to-investment ratio.”

Still, it does appear tastes are changing, and restaurants are sure to follow. Chef Ming Tsai, of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, has faith that Asian small plates are poised for a starring role. He is exploring opening such a place in the city, to be called Blue Dragon.

“This late-night Asian-type eating is here to stay in this country and growing, which is why I’m considering this project,” he says. “I would love to do it in Boston, because I think people are ready for it.”

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